Saturday, June 30, 2018

Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Last year I read and wrote about The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison. Avi Steinberg's Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian starts out disappointing, but once it kicks in, is a wonderfully satisfying and beautifully written book.

When we meet Steinberg, he is somewhat adrift, having abandoned his religious studies at Yeshiva University, escaping to Harvard, but graduating with no discernible direction or passion to find one. The writing is snarky and self-deprecating; the tone is pure staccato. I thought Running the Books might be one of those "guy reads" that I find shallow and irritating.

But when Steinberg accepts a position as a prison librarian -- with no experience in either prisons or libraries -- the writing slows down, and it blossoms. Perhaps the early tone is meant to reflect Steinberg's state of mind at the time. Once it kicks in, the writing is beautiful, and the book is a wonderfully satisfying read.

Steinberg introduces the reader to the prisoners -- both men and women -- who frequent his library, with a keen eye for detail, a wry humour, and a voice suffused with compassion.

The library is a prison hang-out, a somewhat less supervised space where inmates can interact a bit more freely. In this way, Steinberg is witness to interactions an outsider normally would never see. Steinberg also runs a writing class, where inmates reveal bits of their lives and emotions.

The library also functions as an underground post office: prisoners leave each other messages -- known as "kites" -- in books. Many of these messages are romantic in nature, as the male and female inmates live in separate areas, and their paths rarely cross. Steinberg is supposed to destroy these notes, but he cannot bring himself to be so punitive about communication. He copies the messages into a notebook, and they form a sad, lonely core at the heart of this book.

I really liked Steinberg's writing, but I liked his point of view even more. He writes about the inmates with open eyes, not trying to romanticize or sugar-coat their crimes, but also with an open heart, one that recognizes the social complexities that may bring one person to prison and the other to rehab, with completely different outcomes. He is clearly changed by his experience, but he leaves it up to the reader to judge both how he changed, and how much. [A version of this review appeared on wmtc.]

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Dinosaurs are a persistent source of fascination for many people. Everything about earth’s ancient prehistoric past freezes the workaday humdrum reasoning part of our brain and liberates the imagination. Asking the question, What would it have been like to live back then? is inevitable with even the slightest perusal  into this topic (FYI, for much of the time, especially for the first generation of dinosaurs, it would have felt very much like living in a sauna). Author Steve Brusatte is a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and his book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs reads like an epic.

The book is all about the dinosaurs but also discusses the planetary conditions that lead up to the proliferation of the many dinosaur species. Included in the narrative are several of the mass extinction events with special emphasis on the Permian extinction event roughly 250 million years ago.  The Permian extinction wiped out perhaps as much as 90% of the living species on earth. Slowly over millions of years the living animate things rebounded and the stage was set for the rise of the massive reptilian creatures of popular imagination. And there were many, many species of these house sized reptiles. One of the startling facts encountered within the pages of this book is the ongoing and frequent discover of ever new species of dinosaurs.

What makes Brusatte’s story so interesting and what separates his account from many others I have read is the emphases placed on current technology and the creative efforts of scientists to “get inside the heads” of the dinosaurs. What did they think? How did they sense the world? How did they hunt their prey? Researchers in our day with all the latest gadgets that the year 2018 has on offer are attempting to squeeze every ounce of information out of the fossil records.  The results are intriguing and provide an almost visceral glimpse into the lives of these huge creatures.

For a topic of this size (pun intended), The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is not an overwhelming read. The tone is actually quite conversational and is filled with the author’s observations about his profession. His enthusiasm for the subject and his delight with every new discovery is evident on every page. If you wanted one volume on the latest research into all things dinosaurs this could be the book for you.